Be mindful that you aren’t leaning on metaphors when your writing is lacklustre.

A metaphor, or comparison, is a powerful tool to use in your creative work. Writers use metaphorical statements to add extra power to a description.

Let’s first define our terms:

  • a metaphor is a comparison of two unlike things
  • a simile is a metaphorical statement (a comparison of two unlike things) that uses like or as

The essential difference between the two is that one is implied and the other explicit.

In metaphors, the comparison is implied:

“These are the dog days of summer.”

– Shakespeare

“What do the sightless windows see, I wonder, when the sun throws passersby against them?”

– William Glass

In similes, the comparison is explicit:

“My love is like a red red rose.”

– Byron

“The weather as cool and gray as wash water.”

– George Garrett

What you’re doing when you use a metaphor is asking your reader to make a comparison in their mind that evokes a response that, in some way, deepens their understanding of the person, place, or thing being described.

A good metaphor gives us a little shock.

It stretches our imagination by forcing us to see something in a new light.

It also convinces us that something is true.

A dead metaphor is one that has been absorbed into the language to the point where we don’t even notice it anymore.

They enrich our language by making it more colourful and relatable:

  • He ran for office
  • The dog worried the bone
  • She flew from one task to another
  • I’m open to suggestions

Clichéd metaphors are on their way to becoming dead metaphors.

Once they were fresh and exciting — they wouldn’t have lasted otherwise.

They haven’t completely been absorbed into the language yet as they require you to make a small imaginative leap from the literal to the metaphorical — though they’re without the big payoff, delight and surprise, of a new, completely fresh metaphor:

  • I felt like my heart would burst.
  • He raved like a lunatic.
  • She ran like the wind.

Beware metaphors involving eyes.

Though the instinct to use the eyes is good — we tend to look in the eyes of another to discern emotion and expression — this is an overused metaphor that should be employed sparingly.

Depending too much on eye metaphors is usually a sign that you’re taking the easy way out: trying to attribute all manner of character traits through the eyes rather than focusing on other, often more relevant (and certainly more interesting) details.

A symbol is a specific object or event that stands for something else.

It isn’t a comparison because there is a range of meaning beyond the ‘thing’ itself.

In Moby-Dick, the whale is a symbol for complex, God-like knowledge that must not be pursued by man.

The cross stands for both crucifixion of Jesus as well as the ideals and beliefs of Christianity.

A symbol doesn’t have a comparison. It stands by itself, and it must be a part of the story yet mean more than the story.

It can be shared — something common to culture, language, nationality or religion — or it can be created within the work of fiction or poetry.

A symbol is the result of the accumulation of experience, not just a label you can slap onto any object.

Personification is when you give human characteristics to nonhuman entities.

“Literary personification marshalls inanimate things, such as passions, abstract ideas, and rivers, and makes them perform actions in the landscape of the narrative.”

– Andrew Escobedo

  • Lightning danced across the sky.
  • The wind howled in the night.
  • The car complained as the key was roughly turned in its ignition.
  • My alarm clock yells at me to get out of bed every morning.

Conceit is when you bring two things together that are very unlike each other in a non-intuitive comparison.

Usually, an explanation is required for it to be understood.

A conceit uses an extended metaphor comparing two very dissimilar things. It’s often elaborate and control a large section of the text or even the entire text.

Conceits are often unique and ingenious and can present striking juxtaposition and comparison of unlike things.

A metaphor is hard enough to pull off without stretching it and stretching it and then explaining how the comparison works to your reader — so make sure that you use conceit only when you have good cause to do so.

Who are you? Where do you fit into poetry and myth? Do you know? You are Fifth Business.

You don’t know what that is? Well, in opera in a permanent company of the kind we keep up in Europe you must have a prima donna — always a soprano, always the heroine, often a fool; and a tenor who always plays the lover to her; and then yo must have a contralto, who is a rival to the soprano, or a sorceress or something; and a basso, who is the villain of the rival or whatever threatens the tenor.

So far so good, but you cannot make the plot work without another man, and this is usually a baritone, and he is called in the profession Fifth Business, because he is the odd man out, the person who has no opposite of the other sex. And you must have Fifth Business because he is the one who knows the secret of the heroine’s birth, or comes to the assistance of the heroine when she thinks all is lost, or keeps the hermitess in her cell, or may even be the cause of somebody’s death if that is part of the plot. The prima donna and the tenor, the contralto and the basso, get all the best music and do all the spectacular things, but you cannot manage the plot without Fifth Business! It is not spectacular, but it is a good line of work, I can tell you, and those who play it sometimes have a career that outlasts the golden voices.

– from Fifth Business by Robert Davies

When should you use a metaphor?

You may feel that your imagery isn’t compelling enough without metaphors, but usually, the reverse is true.

The gratuitous use of metaphors and similies can clutter up a piece of writing — especially when the metaphors are clichéd or otherwise overly familiar.

Don’t be in such a hurry to say what something is like that you fail to let your reader know what it is.

The best metaphors are organic, growing out of the story itself.

A good metaphor or simile resonates within the narrative, and your reader should immediately see the truth of it. Don’t make them stop, go back and reread, don’t make them puzzle it out; let your reader grasp it at once.

Too often we resort to metaphors when we don’t know what else to do. But writing is about language, and as the figurative stuff gets piled on, the writing loses momentum and tension.

There is no point in doing a writing exercise for a metaphor because it defeats the purpose. A metaphor needs to arise organically.

Sometimes you’ll know that a particular phrase is dying for a metaphor, a comparison to illuminate it, and you’ll feel it hovering just out of reach.

In these cases, work on it, but don’t force it. It’s better to stick with describing what something is using one or more of the five senses than putting in a metaphor that is imprecise or strained.

Think of a metaphor like that one extra suitcase, that weighty one, that you should always think about before you put it in the car on the way to the airport. Do you really need this?

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